Here's a music-journalism secret: Interviewing performers in their second language can be more enlightening than quizzing them in their first. Why? Folks familiar with English, say, are generally adept at using the idiom to skirt subjects, spin responses or appear frank without truly unwrapping their souls in the slightest. In contrast, people with a relatively rudimentary command of the vernacular are forced by those limitations to say what they actually mean.
Consider Jonas Gustafsson, a youthful singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist for Sweden's Division of Laura Lee. A more adept English speaker would probably be able to dodge or deflect questions about originality inspired by 2002's enjoyably derivative Black City, a disc on the feisty Burning Heart imprint that's being distributed in the United States by Epitaph. But Gustafsson, a forthright fellow in any tongue, heads straight for the guts of the matter. "We haven't really got our own sound yet," he says, his accent strong, his delivery intermittently halting. "Maybe someday."
Immediately thereafter, Gustafsson makes it clear that he and his Division mates (vocalist/guitarist Per Stålberg, guitarist Henrik Röstberg and drummer Håkan Johansson) are making progress toward their goal of stylistic independence. As he puts it, "Every song we make, it's different from the others. And I think the next record will be even further away from the original song ideas that we had. We want to work out our sound -- our own sound. Nowadays, it's more like, 'You guys sound like Jesus and Mary Chain,' or whoever else it would be. But maybe in the future, I would like people to say, 'This new band sounds like Division of Laura Lee.' That would be an amazing thing."
This lovely prospect remains a ways off. At present, when D.O.L.L. isn't being likened to the groovy combos it echoes, it's being lumped in with other Swedish garage-rock and punk acts -- particularly the Hives -- that domestic tastemakers have been hyping for months. In Gustafsson's view, the latter phenomenon is mainly, but not entirely, positive. "I understand why it happens. We don't really feel we're from the same background as the other bands that are getting this attention, and we don't really sound like any of them. But it's still really good that it's happening. Just a year ago, we weren't getting any attention, so it's good to get some.
"When this trend wears off, we probably won't get a lot of attention anymore," he goes on. "Hopefully we will. Hopefully it's about quality and not about a trend. We will still make good music. That's what I think. And when this whole thing is over, maybe we'll have a good fan base of people who really like our music, and don't just like us because we're Swedish."
In many ways, they're not. The band got its start in Vänersborg, a community of just over 20,000 residents that's anchored by an extraordinarily Scandinavian business: a Saab factory. No doubt some residents make Swedish meatballs, too. But when asked to identify homegrown inspirations for the Division's music, Gustafsson is flummoxed. "There are some good bands in Sweden that I like who play traditional music, and I like some of the old folk music. But I don't really see that as an influence on us. All the bands from Sweden that I like are influenced by American and British stuff, like we are. I don't really hear other Swedish influences on us."
This claim is feasible partly because of the openness of the European music scene -- a place where globalism has long been a reality. Sweden's album-sales rosters typically contain a number of groups that hail from the region and use its language; among them are Kent, a veteran outfit that Gustafsson describes as "a bit like stadium rock, a bit sensitive," and Håkan Hellström, who specializes in "happy music," the rocker says. Comparative newcomers such as Melody Club and the Sounds, whose album is optimistically titled Living in America, turn up as well; Gustafsson predicts that these collectives will hit the States by springtime. But fully half of one Swedish top-twenty chart from January is made up of English-speaking vocalists: Robbie Williams, Norah Jones, Eminem, Avril Lavigne and, in keeping with the dour reputation of Scandinavia, Leonard Cohen. Gustafsson also testifies to the popularity in Sweden of "Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake and Nelly -- you know, that rap guy."
As for D.O.L.L., it's no smash in Sweden, as Gustafsson acknowledges. "Bands like us and the (International) Noise Conspiracy [a strong five-piece that's also on Burning Heart] are underground, you know? I like playing in Sweden, of course, but we have a bigger audience outside of Sweden, because the kind of music we play is punk and hardcore. That's the kind of music I've always been playing and enjoying, so that makes sense." The Stooges and Joy Division are frequent points of reference for reviewers, but Gustafsson says his all-time favorite group is Fugazi -- or, as he pronounces it, "Foo-got-see."
Formed in 1997 and named for a '60s soul singer about whom the players proudly claim to know next to nothing, Division of Laura Lee issued a handful of recordings, most prominently the 1998 EP There Is a First Time for Everything, before inking with Burning Heart in 2001. Following another EP, Pretty Electric, the band assembled Black City, a platter that's slyly melodic yet undeniably forceful, with just the right touch of creepiness. Track one, "Need to Get Some," sets the stage with pumping guitars, an anthemic chorus and brawny singing that studiously avoids telltale clues about the music's country of origin. Afterward, the band intersperses bare-knuckled boastfulness, as in "We've Been Planning This for Years," with the premature cynicism exemplified by the opening couplet of "Number One": "I'm on a million-dollar trip/And it's making me sick."
In addition, the album makes room for slower tempos and lyrics that give confession a twist. On "I Guess I'm Healed," Stålberg sings about outgrowing childhood trauma in the bitterest of terms: "I used to cry myself to sleep/For ten years/But now I'm dry/I guess I'm healed." Even grimmer is "I Walk on Broken Glass," a keyboard-drenched recitation by Gustafsson, who says lines like "They take my child/And make me walk in line" were inspired by the death and funeral of a good friend who perished recently. "He had a long illness; he died too young," Gustafsson says. "It was really horrible. But I didn't want to write, 'My friend died and I was really sad.' I write more like poems, you know? I don't want to put names and all of that into the songs. To me, that is a personal thing."
These are hardly the only gloomy moments to shadow Black City, and Gustafsson doesn't bother to pretend otherwise. "The lyrics I wrote didn't feel that dark when I wrote them, maybe because I got rid of some issues that I had when I wrote them down," he says. "But when I got the record and heard the overall reaction, I sat down and listened to it and got the feeling that, yeah, this is kind of dark and serious stuff.
"I think I took care of a lot of problems just by writing these songs -- a lot of really hard memories, stuff that had happened to us. Now maybe I can feel more relieved when I write the next ones, and the next record will be more happy. But probably not. It's easier to write sad songs."
On the surface, Gustafsson doesn't have many excuses for feeling depressed. He's loved visiting America over the past year or so, in part because "it was amazing to see all the stuff I'd only seen on television and in movies. And there's so much to do. Where I live, you can't really go out. On a weekday, there's nothing open after six o'clock except, like, one coffee shop that's open until ten. But in the U.S., ten is early." Moreover, D.O.L.L. has received excellent notices for its live shows, which are known for their aggressiveness; a European tour had to be canceled last fall because drummer Johansson "wore out his arm from playing too hard" while in the States, Gustafsson says.
Despite these positive signs, however, he still suffers from moments of melancholy. "The success of bands like the Hives really inspires me, because it tells me that it's not impossible to make a living doing this. But some days, I feel like, 'Oh, my God,' because it's a long road I have to walk to finally be able to support my family. We don't make any money from the CD yet, and we don't make that much money from playing live, either. And people are like, 'You have to do this support tour, and then another support tour, and then another, and you've got to break soon to get this and that.'
"But in the end, that stuff never really deters me. We started the band to have fun and to do our own music, music that we liked. I really like our music -- and I really like playing live. It's cool to be in the studio, and meet all these nice people who are making T-shirts and stuff -- but you get tired of that sometimes. And playing live is something I'll never get tired of." He pauses. "Well, maybe I will when I'm 35 or something."
Thank goodness that comment didn't get lost in the translation.
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