An American tourist asks the musical question, ‘Is it something in the water?’

Letter from Sweden

Dear Esmerelda,

Here I am on the train to Stockholm. I lost the bet—Sweden isn’t called the Land of the Midnight Sun after all. So I made up my own nickname: I’m calling it Land of Pop Bands. It’s hard to believe that Sweden’s not resting on its laurels after cooking up Absolut and ABBA, but now there’s a whole new generation of Swedes pumping out intoxicating pop songs.


Crocodile, Monday, June 22

Remember the Cardigans, who did that song “Love Fool” that I always sang along with whenever it came on the car radio last year? And the Wannadies, who did “You and Me Song,” your favorite contribution to the Romeo and Juliet soundtrack? Well, both those bands are from Sweden.

If I had to choose Sweden’s Pop Central, I’d pick Umeaš (pronounced Ooh-may-o), the little college town I just left. This really cool record label, North of No South, puts out music by a bunch of local musicians—the kitsch-pop band Ray Wonder, a sort of sugary trip-hop combo called Daybehavior, a crazy Casio-pop player named Doktor Kosmos, and my new favorite band, Komeda. (Apparently, Umeaš’s got a thriving hardcore-punk scene too—it’s known as “The Seattle of Hardcore”—and Ray Wonder even shot a video for one of its songs with the Umeå straight-edge band Refused . . . but that’s a story for my next letter.)

So I was cruising around a lovely fjord yesterday, and who should I see but Lena Karlsson, Komeda’s singer! Her band just released its third record, What Makes It Go? (in the US it’s on the indie label Minty Fresh). You should listen to it—you won’t be able to get the songs out of your head. It’s cooler than a reindeer sandwich.

Anyway, Lena’s kind of hard to miss because she has this Louise Brooks haircut and she’s always wearing nifty vintage-style pantsuits and stuff. She turned out to be superfriendly, so I was asking her about the ins and outs of constitutional monarchy and the Lutheran religion (two things that are very big in Sweden), but we wound up talking about Umeaš’s great music scene over a mug of Glug.

“It’s quite alive,” she told me. “There was a boom in the early ’80s, and again in the early ’90s. Now some other record companies besides North of No South have formed as well.”

It turns out that Komeda began with Lena and these two brothers—Jonas Holmberg, who plays drums, and Marcus Holmberg, who plays bass—all worshipping the German experimental band Can. They were so inspired by Can that the three of them spent four or five years noodling around in the studio without ever playing in front of an audience! Then they started providing live accompaniment for film screenings (the band is named after film composer Krszytof Komeda, who scored several Roman Polanski efforts, including Rosemary’s Baby). Eventually, they found guitarist Mattias Norlander, who brought a big pop influence into the band, and they made a regular record, Pop På Svenska. But Komeda didn’t become known in America till its second record, The Genius of, when Lena switched to singing all the songs in English.

Lena and I were on our second cup of Glug, and I was trying to steer the conversation around to ball-bearings, which are one of Sweden’s main exports. Instead, we wound up bonding over our mutual love of Iggy Pop and early ’80s British punk bands like Generation X. She’s a big fan of classical music and Kraftwerk too, both of which kind of loom in the background of Komeda’s electronic pop sound.

“From record to record, we’ve changed a bit, but you can still hear that it’s us,” Lena said. “On our new record, we worked a lot with structure, and we wanted to make simple, plain pop songs this time—more direct, maybe, than our other albums.”

In a way, Komeda is like the Swedish version of Stereolab. Lena’s voice is a bit deeper and warmer than Stereolab’s French singer Laetitia Sadier, but both of them use repetition in their lyrics (the refrain of this one Komeda song, “Curious,” is like a lesson in verb conjugation: “I am curious/You are curious/She is curious/He is curious/We are curious/They are curious”). I thought maybe it was a language thing, but Lena told me that it’s actually more difficult for her to write and sing in Swedish. “Since it’s your native language, you interpret every phrase in a special way. For the first record, it took me several weeks to learn how to phrase the songs. I listened a lot to Swedish jazz singers from the ’60s, and that helped.”

Finally the conversation returned to my original question about the Lutheran ministry, and Lena and I chatted politics through another cup of Glug. My hangover today is not to be believed. I almost missed the train this morning!

Anyway, I hope all’s well there. Tell Maude I said hi. I’m sending her a postcard from Stockholm.

Love, Lily