Sweden’s Hour

International Success Helps Swedes Bring It All Back Home

BY Cam LindsayPublished Mar 28, 2007

On the last night of January this year, a funny thing happened in Stockholm. At the Grammis, the annual Swedish music industry awards ceremony, the bizarre yet bewitching electronic pop act known as the Knife totally cleaned house, winning six awards (including Best Artist, Composer and Album). To anyone familiar with the sibling team of Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson, there’s no question that such high honours are deserved for 2006’s Silent Shout. But in a world where awards ceremonies generally represent sales over skill, the Knife’s triumph felt both thrilling and puzzling. Of course, the two members didn’t even show up; in the spirit of their anti-industry behaviour, they sent acceptance speeches via madcap videos featuring friends in disguise.

As astonishing as it is for an unconventional act like this to dominate at a commercial event — especially in a country so well known for its pop fetish — it’s not like the Knife had any real competition. Much like the American Grammys, this ceremony overlooked many of the country’s strongest songwriters in favour of artists that sell in Sweden’s fickle market. What’s even more astonishing than the Dreijers’ domination is that this country of nine million is currently the world’s hottest exporter of music — and the industry, the public, and even some of the bands involved are none the wiser.

Sweden’s been down this road before, and not so long ago. When garage rock received its kiss of life in 2001, bands such as the Hives, the (International) Noise Conspiracy, the Division of Laura Lee, the Hellacopters and arguably, the Soundtrack of Our Lives, were there to reap the rewards. But now that that wave has derived itself to death, a new one is taking centre stage — one much less focussed on any particular style.

While still immersed in its renowned pop traditions, Sweden has become a mesmerising musical force, offering a scene that is rich in diversity: from the hyperactive art punk of Love Is All and the suave orchestrations of Jens Lekman, to the ever-changing retro sounds of the Legends and the weepy-eyed soul of El Perro del Mar.

And the Knife’s Olof Dreijer understands how Sweden could develop into such a musical hotbed. "I think Swedish people are very good at copying,” he earnestly remarks. "We also have a public music school that is quite good, and a fairly good social service system, where you can get money from the state to make music and not work. I think these three things are my political reasons for why good music is coming out of Sweden.”

Their mantle now cluttered with trophies, the Knife are wildly successful at home; they are also one of the few Swedish acts to thrive elsewhere on the same level. But it wasn’t easy — or expected. "We had been trying to get our music abroad since 2001, with our first album, but we hadn’t been able to do that until now,” Olaf Dreijer says. "It has been quite hard, actually; it was not a conscious decision, it has just taken a long time. I have always thought that you can’t live out of the music; I think of it as a hobby because I have work [running the Knife’s label, Rabid] and then I have making music.” He says, "I think we had a very surprising success with our previous album, Deep Cuts, in Sweden. We never thought it would be that big.”

The opposite can be said for Robyn, one of the Knife’s friends and collaborators. Initially signed for her commercial appeal, Robyn (surname Carlsson) has been a recording artist since she was 16, and is one of Sweden’s most successful pop stars. If the name sounds familiar that’s because her debut album, Robyn Is Here, was released universally back in 1997, and quickly made her one of many teenagers that elevated the bubblegum market in the late ’90s. However, after nearly a decade of labour under the expectations of BMG, Robyn was able to steer her career into more independent waters. Now 27, she runs her own label, Konichiwa, which released 2005’s career-defining self-titled album in Scandinavia only. "All records are me, but this is the first record I’ve made all by myself, which is a big difference,” she says. "So I’ve been able to kind of build something; I had a good start, and then I built on that. I was lucky enough to still have a very strong base in Sweden and that enabled me to translate my career into something different and new for me.”

Without resorting to mainstream pop’s obvious stereotypes for women, Robyn is a composed and confident artist that can go from sentimental to sexy to side-splittingly funny in the drop of an Ikea futon. It’s no wonder her latest album’s cheeky stabs at pop, hip-hop, R&B and electro has gained respect outside of her country from hungry hipster bloggers and club kids. With the album finally slated for an April release in the UK (through Konichiwa — she refuses to get entangled with another soul-sucking major), Robyn’s trying to reach a wider audience, but it’s not a make-or-break scenario. "It’s not so much a concern, and that’s what is so great about having this freedom because I have my base here in Sweden, and I have this foundation that really follows me in what I do. I’m very lucky in that way because it’s my safety net, so I can live off the money that I make here and I don’t need to release a record anywhere else to survive — I can just do it to feel good.”

But Robyn knows she is lucky. She recognises that her remarkable success on home turf has eluded many of her contemporaries. "I don’t think the Swedish music industry is very good at establishing their artists in Sweden. A lot of good bands and artists have made their way outside of Sweden and then been accepted back home. Like all small countries, record companies don’t have the guts to release a different kind of record because there aren’t a lot of people to buy it. It’s harder to get your music exposed.”

A number of other acts are also discovering the need to leave the country to further their careers. The Radio Dept. tried to by signing a deal with mega-indie XL Recordings to license their debut album, Lesser Matters, outside of Scandinavia in 2004. But when their more electronically enhanced follow-up Pet Grief failed to sustain the previous album’s shoegazing splendour, they were dropped. "Although a lot of their releases sound like jeans ad music, they’re still the label that put out the Avalanches, M.I.A., Dizzee Rascal and Zongamin,” admits Johan Duncanson, the band’s founding member. "We were really proud to be on XL. I think the problem was that, despite good reviews and stuff, we didn’t sell much. If we had done a noisy shoegaze album instead of Pet Grief they might have kept us. But we’d rather work full-time jobs and develop as a band than do the expected just to sell records or to please a record label.”

The band managed to dominate Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette soundtrack, sell a Gucci ad and build a global fan base willing to pay to hear the Radio Dept.’s sublime dream pop. Now exclusively on Labrador Records worldwide, a label that uses various distributors to sell their products, they’re still looking for another label to work with outside of Sweden. "It would be more than satisfying to have a small, devoted crowd of intelligent people listening in North America and, well, anywhere. But we have license deals with indie labels in some European and Asian countries so we’re not complaining. We get our fair share of travelling which is nice,” says Duncanson. "We’re not exactly Labrador fans — to us they’re just the company that puts our records out. We don’t feel that we have anything in common with the other bands on the label at all. As it looks now we’re kind of stuck though. According to the contract we have to produce two more albums for them. But it would be nice to get the records out, so we’re interested in finding labels outside of Sweden.”

Emil Svanängen, aka lullaby-composer extraordinaire Loney, Dear, was a musician working out of his student apartment and parents’ basement, recording on small budgets and selling (as well as burning) his CD-Rs. Until his recent signing with Sub Pop (who in February re-released his fourth album, Loney, Noir), Svanängen went virtually unnoticed by the Swedish press and radio. Svanängen says, "I’ve always felt I had to break in Sweden before I go abroad but now I know it’s the opposite. You really have to make a career in the U.S. before you can do anything back home — that’s my experience. "I’ve got a feeling that Americans and Canadians try to listen to the music before they check out if it’s matching what is hip at the moment,” admits Svanängen. "The Swedes are really looking out first to see if there’s anything to make it interesting and then they listen to the music to see if it’s good as well. That is why [Loney, Dear] haven’t got much attention, because there is nothing really there, ‘hip-wise.’ The other day I saw we were at the top of a list of bands A&R wanted to sign, so things have changed a little.”

The country’s hottest export over the last six months, Peter Bjorn & John, are all too familiar with the hardships of getting exposed in Sweden’s erratic industry. If you’ve been out to an indie club, read a music blog, or tuned into Grey’s Anatomy this season, chances are you’ve met the trio. They’re the three Swedes that have embedded a whistled melody into your brain with the hit single "Young Folks.” While many think they are a new band, PB&J have been working away for eight years now, and the recently released Writer’s Block is their third album. "We never sold more than a small amount of records here in Sweden; the record was released here in May and not much happened with it. Now there is more buzz going around [in Sweden] because of the breakthrough [in the States],” says the band’s Björn Yttling (bass, vocals, whistling). "The thing with the Concretes or the Hives is, after they got huge around the States, people here then showed some interest too, where before they weren’t big at all. We’re in the same category.” This isn’t the band’s first crack at North America. In 2005, their second album Falling Out was given a domestic release here by small indie Hidden Agenda, but much like balladeer José González, who was also signed to the label, the record failed to catch on. "With Hidden Agenda we never even booked any flights, they released it without any resources — we got a few reviews but it wasn’t much,” Yttling admits.

A deal with Wichita in the UK gave PB&J their first taste of hype, and months later landed them a deal with the fledgling Almost Gold label. Though they were reportedly courted by a few labels, their decision to choose a North American home was easier (and cuter) than expected. "We didn’t know much about the guys behind [Almost Gold], but we knew the name from a Jesus & Mary Chain song, so that was one plus. And then we met them and they were nice.”

Peter Bjorn & John’s recent press coverage may have something to do with the one-sided skirmish they’ve begun with the 29 smiles that make up I’m From Barcelona. Maybe it’s their unusually large membership or the overwhelming joy of their hug-inducing orch pop that brought them attention, but the hipster oddballs in IFB are certainly not everyone’s cup of Sockerdricka. Just ask PB&J, who have publicly announced their distaste for the group . Upon mention of the band, Björn Yttling is quick to utter his contempt: "I don’t like them at all. They write stupid lyrics and I don’t want to waste my life listening to stupid lyrics about stamps.” Alas, the Swedes can officially announce their first great feud — the true sign of a flourishing music scene. But can it rival the great Britpop clash of ’95 between Blur and Oasis?

Like a true pacifist, IFB front-man Emanuel Lundgren would rather hug it out than continue a war of words. (Damn.) "I was kind of surprised because I’m very positive to PB&J,” he responds sincerely. "I like their music, so I have nothing bad to say; they have great taste in music, they like Yo La Tengo. I thought we would end up doing a gig together; I’ve noticed there are a lot of people who are into our music who ask about them — for me it would be a great night. Maybe they have to meet us, because we’re a pretty nice bunch.”

If their music’s anything to go by, IFB are indeed a nice bunch. The optimism found in their songs — think of a Circle Square campfire, minus the religious bits — is infectious, and capable of filling you with the carefree spirit they’re built from. In a perma-smiling tone, Lundgren claims it’s the collective’s communal sanguinity that inspires his songs. "The music wasn’t the most important thing for me; my goal was to have a lot of fun with my friends, with late night recording. A lot of people in the band had never been in a band before, so it was kind of an experiment and it was to enjoy the process of making the music rather than the final result.”

Lundgren’s relaxed ambition is impressive, considering what his band has amounted to: steady streams of press and record deals with EMI in Sweden and Mute Records (home to Swedes like the Knife, José González and Mando Diao) in North America, which has just issued IFB’s sunny-side-up debut, Let Me Introduce My Friends. "I guess I was lucky because I didn’t even try,” Lundgren admits. "My ambition wasn’t to get a record deal with this band. I’ve been in bands before when I had so many plans and sent so many letters and tried to get attention and nobody replied. This time it was the opposite — I didn’t try, and I didn’t have ambition and suddenly it was interesting. I guess it was a personal mood change; the sad songs didn’t suit my mood anymore. Everything that happened after the first month was kind of accidental and good luck.”

Like every built up whim, Sweden’s music boom has its supporters and its critics. Manifest Award (honouring the best indie acts) winners for Best New Artist, Lo-Fi-Fnk (pronounced "low-fi-funk”), feel things haven’t changed creatively whatsoever over the last while. "The independent music scene has been quite the same all the time and the only difference now is that more people from abroad get some taste of it,” says Leo Drougge, one half of the duo. Like many artists, Drougge has found online networking and blogs to be the biggest difference in finding those outside markets. "I think that the main thing with the music boom over here is that more bands from Sweden are reaching out with their music abroad and it's probably because of MySpace and blogs. It's easier for bands from smaller countries to reach out now.”

Along with a North American tour this spring, the up and coming electro pop act will finally release their album Boylife (released last year in the UK by the taste-making Moshi Moshi label) over here in the coming months. According to Drougge, he and band mate August Hellsing are most excited about this next chapter in their career largely because Sweden doesn’t suit their needs. "We have never felt that our music really belongs in Sweden. The music ‘market’ here is in many ways claustrophobic. Plus we overdid our expectations in our home country. We never did know where and how to begin to take our music to people outside [until recently]. And now we have our biggest fans outside of Sweden.”

Victoria Bergsman, on the other hand is in full denial. "I don’t know if I agree that there are a lot of good bands,” says the press-shy singer. "I think MySpace has made people discover more music, which is both good and bad because there is a lot of shit here. Nothing is really sincere [in Sweden], and I don’t think it will last long.” Having left the internationally successful throwback pop collective the Concretes last year (because, she says, "I don’t like touring… and had difficulties being in such a big group”), the daintily-voiced Bergsman may not feel like she’s part of anything special, but she’s right in the middle of it all: she’s the feminine lead vocalist on PB&J’s hit single, which leaves her in a great position to launch her new, Rough Trade-signed solo project Taken By Trees — expect an album sometime this year.

But her outlook on music in general is full of questions. "When I left the Concretes I wasn’t sure if I was going to make music at all, and I didn’t want it to be such a strong focus when I decided to make music, to have too much attention. I wanted it to be a project to see if I enjoyed making music and being in the music industry more.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Johan Angergård, who champions the country’s attention. And he should — his record label’s slogan is "Sweden’s and the world’s finest purveyor in pop music.” The co-owner and operator of Labrador Records, Angergård’s business plan is to solely discover the best Swedish pop going, and he’s done an admirable job since the label’s launch in 1998. "We started out just looking for good music, but there were so many good bands in Sweden, more than we could release. So we decided just to release Swedish bands and have our own little niche: This is Labrador and we think they’re the best Swedish pop bands. That is what we think you’ll get from Labrador Records.” Just recently the label released a stellar four-disc compilation, Labrador 100, A Complete History of Popular Music, which culls 100 songs from its catalogue by bands such as Angergård’s own — Club 8, Acid House Kings, and currently, the Legends — as well as Loveninjas, Wan Light and Suburban Kids with Biblical Names. For Angergård, the most important thing is to keep the good music coming, much like the labels he respects. "I first started [releasing] the albums only outside of Sweden, with Club8 on March Records. To me that is more important, because it’s like the bands I liked when I was younger, like on Sarah Records — they were small everywhere, but they were international in their approach, a small fan base worldwide. It’s a healthy sign, because you know the people that you reach are really into the music. For me, I’d rather sell 10,000 albums around the world then 10,000 albums in Sweden and then nowhere else; that way you know that people have made an effort to find the album.”

Angergård’s excitement seems to be airborne and travelling, because this Swedish fever is infecting people everywhere. Whether it’s the rise of indie club nights like Tack!Tack!Tack! in London, England and Svensk! in Toronto, or the sound of "Young Folks” taking over the airwaves and blogosphere, Sweden’s musical prowess is quickly catching on. As Angergård points out, it’s the perfect combination of good music and good taste: "I hear it a lot from people outside of Sweden, that Swedish music is so popular right now. It’s been really good recently — the Swedish ‘pop!’ But I think people gradually just got better taste in music.”

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