Sweden: The Other West Coast

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A postcard from Gothenburg, Sweden, where the water’s clean, the air is crisp, and the music is blissfully unclassifiable.

The last few years have been big for Scandinavia, with the dulcet disco of Lindstrøm and Todd Terje tearing up the underground and Robyn and The Knife getting people to reexamine the pop charts, not to mention the reinvigorated interest in Scando rock from International Noise Conspiracy to Norwegian black metal. But something far less shiny and more intimate has been brewing on Sweden’s West Coast, in the port town of Gothenburg (Göteborg to the natives). Home to a massive melodic death metal scene and a pescatarian market called the Fish Church, Gothenburg has quietly incubated some of the most interesting and unpredictable acts from the laid-back yet stylish end of the indie spectrum. Spiritually akin to West Coast cities everywhere–San Francisco, Bristol, Cape Town–Gothenburg appears to have, if not a signature sound, then its own artful way of doing things, as we found out when we caught up with lysergic disco-dub duo Studio, future-soul survivors Little Dragon, and post-doo-wop daredevil El Perro Del Mar.

Cosmic and psychedelic coastal pop from two totally do-it-yourself dudes.

The world does not need another post-psych jam band. And while art-rock dudes, obscure vinyl collectors, and bongo enthusiasts may vehemently disagree, there’s no denying that the indie infrastructure has been overrun by bands carrying the noodly jam sessions a little too far. This is not true of the band known simply as Studio. On their 2007 full-length, West Coast, the duo of Dan Lissvik and Rasmus Hägg revamp psych’s once-fresh tripper essence with a heavy application of complex Afrobeat percussion, windy synth textures, and plenty of New Order-making-out-with-King-Tubby guitar lines.

Released via the members’ own Information imprint, West Coast (which didn’t really catch on until this year) streams through six of the most subtle, bass-heavy bonfire mind-blowers you’ve ever heard. Slow burners like “Life’s a Beach,” “Indo,” and the 16-minute “Out There” ride dubby vibe winds to the edge of the mindscape, yet remain more pop-structured than your standard spaced-out bong-rip soundtrack (though they definitely work for hesh sessions). “The main concept behind Studio was to go straight, do [it ourselves], and bypass [any] third party,” says Lissvik via email. “DIY consensus was, and still is, a big part of the Studio [approach]. We really don’t know what the next thing will be. It has always been like that and it always be.”

Hägg agrees. “It’s all about the beauty of not knowing.”

The band’s overall aesthetic continues along this psychedelic DIY train, with Hägg producing all of the album artwork. Each of the band’s releases is adorned with spheres, sometimes filled with a spectrum of colors (as on the EPs Yearbook 1 and 2), sometimes completely minimal (West Coast and its subsequent singles). The overall effect is a humble, mystic consistency often missing from other “cosmic” outfits.

Taking cues from the members’ respective punk pasts, the duo’s recently released remix compilation, Yearbook 2, indicates the outfit’s ability to turn any track into its own West Coast hybrid, no matter how obscure or poppy the original may be. To that end, they’ve crafted an epic, guitar-driven remake of Kylie Minogue’s 2007 single “2 Hearts” and a sensitive and profoundly catchy renovation of fellow Swedish outfit Shout Out Louds’ “Impossible.” “It’s really not about the artist when you remix,” states Hagg. “You can choose to work with only really cool, hip-shit artists and let that lead your way, but the only thing that’s been interesting for us is to be able to tweak something [that is], in our opinion, not too good into something that we think is interesting in some way. It might seem a bit cocky but it’s true.”

Hägg’s and Lissvik’s instrumentation is as diverse as their inspiration, which includes bands as eclectic as Throbbing Gristle, Happy Mondays, Death, Alice In Chains, Alan Parsons Project, and Def Leppard (naturally). “I used to be very, very dogmatic when I listened to music as a teenager and disliked a lot of stuff that I now completely have to kneel in front of,” says Hägg. “And that’s a lovely thing. There are still a lot of things I want to dig deeper into, but I tend to save a little bit of music history for later, to be able to be knocked over and over again, which happens more and more seldom with contemporary stuff in my opinion.”

However unimpressed Studio may be with current bands, their label, Information, has nonetheless managed to release groundbreaking new records from all over. Outside-of-the-box psych enterprises Fontän, A Mountain of One, and Century all call the label home. “Century is a part of the Information legacy,” explains Hägg. “We couldn’t resist the beautiful band name, and also we’re friends; that’s how we recruit people to our label. One of the Centuries–Leon, the 1300th one–is also our light magician when we play live,” continues Hägg, expounding upon the lengths Studio will go to for things to be exactly the way they want them. “Last year we brought this fluorescent lamp set-up on tour, so we had to bring this huge electric unit just to control the whole thing. It was worth it. It was massive.” Fred Miketa

Little Dragon
A cold-buttered soul band gives R&B the Swedish massage.

It’s hard to discuss Little Dragon without starting with the voice. You don’t want to shortchange musicians Fredrik Källgren Wallin (bass), Erik Bodin (drums), and Håkan Wirenstrand (keyboards), or the intoxicating, labyrinthine rhythms that form the axis of the group’s self-titled debut album, but it’s singer Yukimi Nagano that seems to really get people worked up. (Just look at the YouTube comments for the band’s three videos.) She might be a half-Japanese vocalist from Sweden but, on tracks like “Constant Surprises” and “Recommendation,” Nagano conjures the best elements of American R&B. With her graceful, wispy voice and a tendency to stretch vowels into languorous moans, more than a few folks have likened her to the seemingly incomparable Erykah Badu (including Badu herself, who, upon hearing Little Dragon for the first time in the presence of this writer, was ecstatic to learn she’d influenced music so exotic).

“Everyone listened to really different music growing up, which is why there are so many elements in our [sound],” Nagano says over the phone from the group’s homebase in Gothenburg. “Håkan grew up with Swedish folk. I’ve always liked a lot of American R&B myself. Growing up, Prince was not very cool to listen to in Sweden. I listened to him every day after school but I’d hide my CD when my friends came over.”

As a child, Nagano–born to a Japanese father and an American mother–spent her summers in California. She initially made her mark as a vocalist on the nu-jazz circuit, but conjuring Billie Holiday for bedroom Blakeys like Koop and Stateless was never her thing. “None of the other things I’ve done really matter,” says Nagano, the sometime collaborator (and girlfriend) of Gothenburg troubadour José González. (Bodin also plays drums in Gonzalez’s band.) “I’ve been longing to write my own music, and release the music I write with the band.”

Borne of a high-school friendship between Nagano, Källgren, and Bodin, the unit existed informally for years before dubbing themselves Little Dragon five years ago. “We’ve never been very productive and we’re not very business-minded,” says Nagano–who, by virtue of her flawless English, acts as a spokesperson for the band during our conversation (though Källgren is also on the line). “We never thought to send out demos. So it sort of became the playground where you just go to the studio and make music. Finally, we felt we had so much ideas and music, it’d be silly not to do something.”

The band’s first single, “Test” b/w “Surprise,” made a near-instant splash in England, despite the fact that just 1,000 7-inch vinyl copies were pressed. With Rough Trade naming the record “single of the week” and influential DJs like Gilles Peterson bigging up “Test,” London-based Peacefrog Records commissioned their eponymous debut album, which was released in Europe in September 2007.

The band–whose members don’t exactly qualify as professional producers–handled every aspect of the LP’s recording themselves, right down to the final mixes. You’d never know it, though; while tracks run the gamut from minor-key piano ballads (the album-opening “Test”) to bubbly pop (“Recommendation”) and downtempo space dub (“Forever”), it has the continuity of a producer-driven release.

“We’re not interested at all in having someone else’s mind [involved],” Nagano says of the lack of outside production. “And most of [the remixes] people have done for us have been really bad. You dream that once you have a label you’ll get the people you want, like, ‘Couldn’t you ask Madlib or someone we really respect to do something interesting?’ It got to the point where, if this was the way it [was] gonna be, then we should just do it ourselves.”

With another album’s worth of material already in the bag–and set for European release on Peacefrog in the spring–the band has already developed a significant U.S. following despite their lack of distribution here. But with pivotal hip-hop DJs like Funkmaster Flex spinning Röyksopp’s “Remind Me” and Norway’s Stargate supplying beats to Beyoncé and Ne-Yo (not to mention running a new label with Jay-Z), the idea of a Scandinavian R&B band gaining serious traction Stateside is beginning to seem like a realistic possibility.

In fact, Nagano says, the best reception they’ve gotten to date was at a show in L.A. in April. “I don’t know if it’s because we’re used to European people being more reserved but Americans were so like, ‘Wahhhhh!!!’” Nagano says, imitating the crowd’s screams. “We felt, if this is the best moment in our musical career, it’s okay.” Jesse Serwer

El Perro Del Mar
A Gothenburg guiding light follows her own artistic compass.

Even though she’s a native of Gothenburg, Sarah Assbring was, for a stretch, strangely disconnected from her hometown’s fertile music community. The angelic singer-songwriter, who goes by the cryptic handle El Perro Del Mar, “really didn’t know what was going on in Gothenburg at first,” she says, hanging out backstage at NYC venue Joe’s Pub while on tour with fellow Swedish pop maven Lykke Li earlier this year. But after releasing some of her own songs in 2003, she found that like-minded musicians such as José González and Jens Lekman were working right under her nose. It was a friendship with Lekman that helped Assbring’s music find a worldwide audience.

Her first LP, 2006’s El Perro Del Mar (The Control Group), was a collection of material from early EPs and singles that showcased her knack for combining catchy doo-wop (seriously, hooks for days) with a dark lyrical sensibility. But the album’s follow-up, 2008’s mournful From the Valley to the Stars, takes a sharp turn in both content and tone.

“I’m the kind of person who feels I need to react against what I’ve done before,” explains Assbring, who gravitated towards a conceptual piece (an album with a capital A) to counterbalance El Perro Del Mar’s simple pop songs. From the Valley to the Stars is remarkable not so much for its individual tracks (which often bleed together) but as a whole package with a running existential theme.

The life-and-death topics of the album were partly inspired by real events. “A very important person in my life passed away–that was the trigger–but I was at a time in my life where I was really open to thinking about these things,” she offers. Still, the record isn’t overly dark or brooding, and Assbring thinks of it as rather positive in spirit. “It’s about staring the truth of existence in the eye and coming out the other end… realizing that whatever is behind it all, whatever comes after, it’s a good thing,” she muses. “Life is a good thing.”

Judging from the mixed critical response to From the Valley to the Stars, it seems not everyone got the concept. Some fans and reviewers mourned the absence of hook-y numbers like “God Knows (You Gotta Give to Get)” and “It’s All Good.” But Sarah’s not sweating it. “During the work I never really thought about what people would think of it, or if they’d think it wasn’t really corresponding to what I’ve done before,” she says, explaining that she needed to stay true to her artistic ideals. “This is my life, [music] is what I want to continue doing. To be able to do my best, I need to feel that I’m doing what I really have to do. That’s what I admire other artists for.”

Assbring plans to temporarily relocate to NYC to work on her next record. Nothing’s set in stone yet–she’s considering a close collaboration with another artist that she won’t name–but fans would be wise to expect another departure in style. “Since I go so deeply into what I do, when it’s done I’m totally drained and finished with it,” she explains. “I will probably do something that is, for me at least, a reaction against the last album.” Joe Colly

Totally Swede!
Five more Gothenburg acts worth your earspace.

Kristoffer Ragnstam
Ragnstam used to sell homemade drum kits, and a strong sense of rhythm pervades his Beck-esque jumble-sale pop, with its confessional sung/spoken lyrics dancing upon a magically realist backdrop of music-box synths, handclaps, and plenty of muffled snares ’n’ kicks.

Johan Agebjörn
Best known for playing the svengali role behind disco chanteuse Sally Shapiro on her 2006 album, Disco Romance, Agebjörn has recently turned his production chops towards similarly spacey ambient music, as heard on his debut solo outing, Mossebo (Lotuspike).

José González
This former punk/hardcore guitarist is noted for his crystal-clear voice, classical guitar talents, and his poignant covers of The Knife’s “Heartbeats” and Massive Attack’s “Teardrop.” He also plays guitar and sings in the post-rock and folk-inspired band Junip.

Jens Lekman
From the Gothenburg suburb of Angered, Lekman makes guitar-driven twee pop with clever lyrics and cute touches, in the vein of Magnetic Fields and Belle & Sebastian.

Love Is All
A confusing, chaotic pile of angular party rock anchored by squealing synths, skronking sax, and Josephine Olausson’s quirky, shouted vocals. A Hundred Things That Keep Me Up at Night, their sophomore album, was just released on What’s Your Rupture?